How I started and stopped the digital durry

6 minute read

Without addressing the cause and not enforcing restrictions to access, the uptake and demand for vapes will continue to grow.

In the summer before I started university, I worked at a pub where I saw young adults vaping on the regular.

I remember thinking “that’s stupid and disgusting”. Well, someone needed to get me off my high horse because not two days after my family had made the drive back up to Sydney, I had joined the masses.

Vaping was one of those things that my 18-year-old self saw as part of the university experience. I’d never had a detention or stayed out past curfew, and vaping was something I could cross off my list and tell my friends back home (while they looked mildly disgusted).

The first time I vaped was at a party, with one of my friend’s vapes. He had to show me how to do it because I didn’t do it right the first time; I remember him telling me “you need to swallow once you’ve inhaled it, so that it gets in your lungs”.

The idea of chemicals circling around my lungs and being told to use it in a way so that my lungs could fully bear the brunt of my questionable decisions was somehow not a concern to me. I remember the overpowering blueberry flavour, and my throat feeling a little rough, like the way you feel after swallowing when you’ve got a bad cough.

It also wasn’t a decision I weighed up the risks and benefits of – maybe because I already knew I was going to do it, maybe because I was drunk, or maybe because I was with a new group of friends.

Unfortunately (and predictably), it didn’t stop in my first week in Canberra. But for the first few weeks, I wouldn’t say it was a problem – I only vaped in social settings and it honestly wasn’t something I really thought about.

It wasn’t until I bought my own $50 vape, at 2am on a freezing Canberra morning, that it went downhill. I found myself reaching for the pen without consciously thinking about it.

At its worst, I was going through two vapes a week. It was expensive and unhealthy, but I told myself it was nothing compared to other people I knew, and I had only been vaping for two months, so how bad could it be, really?

I was fully aware of the health risks but was insistent that I could stop when I wanted to. As dangerous as it was, I believed that as a young, relatively fit person with no known underlying health issues I wouldn’t experience any side effects.

My uncle’s mother had recently died of lung cancer, and as a Chinese-Australian, I am at a higher risk of contracting the disease, even as a non-smoker.

But it wasn’t a desire to improve my health that made me put the (plastic) pen down.

In June that year, Australia entered a three-month covid-led lockdown. Borders were shut and I spent the second half of the year studying legal ethics and psychology from my childhood bedroom.

Under my mother’s watchful eye in our tiny inner-city terrace, and virtually no way of buying or smoking a vape without her knowing – I quit.

When I asked my mum what she thought of me vaping, she said she was “slightly shocked…despite Healthy Harold’s best efforts, and [because I] grew up not being exposed to vapers or smokers”.

She also added that she was “contented to know that [I am] an adult with full mental capacity and liberties to do what [I] want to do with [my] life”.

And when February rolled around and I was back in Canberra, I had no desire to start again, knowing how easy it was to get sucked into a hole.

It’s well known how normalised vaping and other drug use is on campus. My friends and I would vape on the way to class, at the university pub, and no one would raise an eyebrow.

I remember chatting at a party with a guy who was rolling cannabis joints like he was shuffling cards, or seeing people snort cocaine in the hallways on my way to the communal bathroom.

A lot of people assume that I was peer pressured into vaping – and maybe on a subconscious level I was, but I think that if I had said no that first week of university, no one would have batted an eye.

I also think younger people are generally outwardly non-judgemental and refrain from commenting on other people’s decisions. One of my best friends is a self-proclaimed addict, and if I wanted to, I could be constantly telling her the ins and outs of all the health risks if she doesn’t stop, or at least cut back.

But I won’t, and maybe that is a shortcoming on my part. Perhaps it’s cruel to be kind and the right thing to do as a good friend is to scare her into quitting. But I don’t think it’s something I see changing anytime soon.

And it’s for these reasons that I don’t think the new laws making it illegal to purchase a vape pen without a prescription will be effective.

Where there is a will, people will find a way. There is still a thriving vape culture at my university, and restricting the means of access (albeit poorly, vapes are still readily available) seems to give the appearance that something is being done without addressing the cause.

From my experience, students at universities aren’t telling their friends to stop vaping, meaning that all motivation to stop is intrinsic (coming from the individual themselves), and this is something that the government and news aren’t addressing.

Without addressing the cause and not enforcing restrictions to access, the uptake and demand for vapes will continue to grow. If we had harsher laws and penalties, maybe. But for now, you can still buy a vape at the same convenience store in Canberra Civic where I bought my first.

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